You’re a genius level chemist with terminal lung cancer, stuck teaching the periodic table to high school students. No teacher’s salary can pay mounting medical bills and still have money left over for your family after you’re gone, so the only obvious thing left to do is cook meth.
This is the premise behind AMC’s original series Breaking Bad It stars Bryan Cranston, who played Hal the dad with the hairy back on Malcolm in the Middle , as Walter White, chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin. He won an Emmy for the role last year, but that’s hardly why I’m discussing it on the ThisAbility blog.
Breaking Bad features one of the only well rounded disabled teenage characters ever on television. Walter White Jr. has cerebral palsy, but unlike past depictions of disability, this isn’t the distinguishing feature of his character.
Thickening the plot further is the fact that the actor who plays Walter White Jr., RJ Mitte, also has cerebral palsy, but it’s actually less noticable than his character’s own cerebral palsy diagnosis. While Walter White Jr. uses forearm crutches and has pronounced speech impediment, Mitte can pass as able-bodied in public and his speech symptoms are less noticeable in real life. The acting challenge for him is playing up the disability. Something he told me is a constant reminder of the hard work and perseverence it took to get to the ability level he currently enjoys. For Mitte, some days are better than others.
The show itself gives his teenage character three dimensions, it doesn’t pretend we’re all just superheroes for stepping out into the world and living our lives. Sometimes Walter Jr. is a smart alec jerk, sometimes he’s a whiny bastard and sometimes (perish the thought) he’s trying to bribe liquor store patrons to buy him beer.
This regular teenager, who just happens to have a disability, comes from the mind of series creator Vince Gilligan (The Lone Gunmen) who was inspired to create an authentic disabled teen because of a friend with cerebral palsy in college.
RJ Mitte and his Walter White character represent a shift in possibility for disabled characters on television, but at the same time, we shouldn’t get too excited too fast. The industry still has a long way to go and a lot more disabled actors, creators and crew to employ. It is unfair to think that one 17-year-old teen with cerebral palsy should carry the hopes and dreams of millions of disabled viewers on his back. The load still needs to be spread around and new disabled actors have to enter the industry without reservation.
It’s going to be difficult, it still is, even with organizations like I AM PWD bringing the issues to the public, but nothing will change as long as people with disabilities stay out of the industry because they think they’ll never make it. To break into the Hollywood system actors with disabilities need to shoot for something higher than just fame. Fame won’t happen, but for every actor with a disability that makes it, and plays not just roles written with disabilities, but takes a chance on regular roles, a mind will change and influence the landscape. With enough repetition hopefully seeing disabled people in rich and diverse roles in media will be as normal as seeing black people do the same today.
No one’s just going to give us opportunity, so we can’t be afraid to take it.
Breaking Bad Season 2 Premieres Sunday, March 8 2009 on AMC at 10pm EST/PST
For more on this issue, read my article “Coming Attractions” in the Winter 08/09 issue of Abilities Magazine available through abilities.ca or at various bookstores nationwide.
Aaron is a freelance journalist living in Toronto. His work has appeared in Financial Post Business, Investment Executive Newspaper, and TV Week Magazine, along with Askmen.com. He is a regular contributor to Abilities Magazine and is currently plotting a weekly web comic called GIMP, with artist Jon Duguay, about a handicap school bus driver who wakes up after a crash to find he’s the last able-bodied person on earth — and he’s being hunted.